Digital Age Ethnocentrism

The term digital age has become a natural characterization of the current period in human history; this term is associated with the Western technological regime which is identified by the digital revolution. In the same way that industrial revolution or the iron production marked different periods of our time in terms of means of production (industrial Age, Iron Age), today’s economy is based on information computerization. In 2005 the United Nations inaugurated the Digital Solidarity Fund program in order to address the uneven distribution and use of information and communication technologies and to enable excluded people and countries to enter the new era of the information society.

The term digital age though seems to be inconsistent with the global reality. Only forty percent of the world has internet connectivity according to the World Economic Forum. Users’ growth percentage in 2014 has been 7.9% while in 2010 was 16.1% and in 2000 was 47.2%. So our age is being characterized based principally in a Western reality. There is no doubt that a digital revolution did happen and that the massive shifts in communication, connectivity, sociality and knowledge production are indeed massive, but it would be fair to say that the digital age is also being characterized by Western Ethnocentrism alike many other eras in our history.

Today the digital age and the digital economy that has created is considered an evolutionary inevitability for our world, and those who are not following this evolution are in an disadvantageous position. This idea of a technologically superior West that simply follows scientific progress and an inferior South that struggles to catch up to the West is very problematic. It is not just the underlied cultural suprimacism that implies but also the theoretical gap that it creates on how we should address these inequities and where we should focus our efforts.

The West of the digital economy sees in these inequities possibilities for entrepreneurship, new markets and technological innovation. The focus seems to shift from the struggle for basic goods and peace to a struggle for cheap and accessible technologies that will allow the less privileged to join us on a networked global village. Manuel Castell in The Internet Galaxy (2003) celebrates the internet’s capacity to liberate and he also points out its ability to exclude those who don’t have access to it, calling us to take responsibility for the future of the age.

There is of course a lot of discussion and criticism about the digital economy blinding the people to the reality of the conditions of the world’s poorest countries. Considering ways to eliminate poverty and disease that do not encompass information technology is also part of that discussion. What we call digital economy seems to lack in answers when we look at world’s problems from a less ethnocentric perspective. We can still try to built cheap laptops and mobile phones but to address our time’s biggest problems, that 60% of the world’s population that has no internet connectivity needs to be part of that discussion. To do so we need to create appropriate platforms and the World Economic Forum is not the place to do so.


Virtual Cities

Our understanding of the city can be described in relation to the physical, the historical, the political and the economic. Our experience of space and place and of how we understand contemporary urban space is very much linked to the ways that these experiences can be documented. Image is very powerful in such contexts and the technological mediums we use for documenting images within a city are indispensable to the city experience itself.

The traditional notion of the traveler’s souvenir as an object or journey memoirs are now photographs, videos, audio clips and social media posts that live forever on the web through a virtual reality. The same happens with city inhabitant where their experience of and in the city is closely connected to the ways they documented it online. The cognitive city, the city that we can map, taxonimize and rate is also another way to understand it. Interfaces and applications that allow us to find our way around the city, find a place to eat or suggest a bar with cheap drinks also add to that understanding.

A city as subject is not anymore framed by an “establishment shot” with recognizable landmarks, it has also a global character of a collective experience in the online “community”. There are many examples of how “community” makes use of technology that affects our interpretation of the city. The Fourthsquare app calls itself the unlimited city guide in your pocket. Google Maps offers not only street view perspectives and urban businesses locator but it also gives directions and offers “memory maps” with photos taken by other people. Google’s Night Walk invites us to explore the sounds, streets and soul of the city. It is an immersive tour of Marseille with Street View photos, maps, music, story and narration. Multiple Google products are integrated to create a custom experience that tells the story of the city of Marseille. Google describes this as an effort to encourage people to discover, experiment, and do more with Google products. In contrast to the usual self-guided daytime tours available on Street View, Night Walk lets users soak up the nocturnal sights and sounds of the city at its most enchanting evening hours. Visitors can navigate the streets of Marseille with the help of a local tour guide, Julie, and can stop at interactive hot spots along the way, tells us Google. The Google Knowledge Graph draws relevant data and cultural facts in the form of Google Now cards and YouTube videos, which are integrated throughout the streets. While walking, users will see a photo icon for example, which will produce a pop-up fact about the surrounding area.

Google Night Walk is a great example of how existing technology can create virtual realities that impact on how we experience and understand the city. Night Walk definitely escapes the idea of the city as a series of recognizable landmarks while it is also a great example of “community” remote collaboration if we consider the number of people who have contributed to this city tour. Virtual realities of cities online can exist on social media and applications while keeping a social aspect of the city experience but the more sophisticated they become, for example Google Night Walk, the more isolated the experience can become. What makes social media social is the constant interaction with other users based on commonalities. The example of Night Walk – recognizing of course that this is just one project – offers an augmented look of the city but it does so in isolation. It seems like the closer the look to the virtual city the lonelier the experience might become.

The Critical Enginering Manifesto

The Critical Engineering Manifesto written by Julian Oliver, Danja Vasiliev and Gordan Savicic has been translated in 15 languages and has started a discussion amongst hackers, computer scientists and artists about the influence of technology in our lives and the role of the engineer to study, exploit and expose that influence.

According to Oliver, Danja and Gordan, engineering has a tremendous impact on society. Everything from the way we travel, communicate and explore the world is crafted by engineering changing the way we think and understand ourselves. Contemporary technology unlike modernism and the time of technological reproduction, is abstract, it is unclear how it works. When technology stops being self-described it becomes a black box. According to the writers, locking users out of the inner workings of technology is not merely a marketing tactic; it is a political decision that deprives users of the ability to make informed decisions.

To openly exploit an otherwise closed system is a highly productive and transformative act according to the writers. Firstly it reveals the political intent of the black box and secondly it helps us better understand the technology that we are depending on by revealing the unknowns of its inner workings. Julian, Danja and Gordan present their work by organizing workshops and exhibitions. Their workshops are designed to reveal the political dimension of the internet and provide hands-on knowledge about how the internet works and how it can be exploited. The goal is to educate people on how to build their own network environement in order to have control on how they can swap data and interconnect digitally.

According to the Critical Engineering Manifesto, it is important to inform ourselves about how things are connected and how they work. By learning to exploit the medium we gain ownership and from consumers we can become cultural participants. If engineering is indeed the language with which reality is constructed then those who speak this language are the privileged. The manifesto and the workshops aim to inspire people to educate themselves to learn code and how to exploit technology in order to take control into their own hands.

The Critical Engineering Manifesto is indeed relevant and as a manifesto it has a call to arms character. Educating oneself and taking ownership of everyday technology is an inspiring and solid argument when we question the ways technology is being provided and managed today. But how effective is the individual responsibility of the occasional ‘engineer’ if we consider the users (for example internet users) as the whole of society? It is surely optimistic to imagine everyone learning how to create their own network and take control of their data but can it be done? And what happens to those who are not privileged enough to have the opportunity to do so?

Individual responsibility and critical thinking are without doubt very important and often change comes from individuals and small groups but when it comes to large scale systems could a different approach prove more effective? Aiming at changing the rules of the game might be more effective than changing the minds of the players. A movement that campaigns for state and corporate policy planning could be an example along with collective techno-activism. Ideology and theory are equally important when addressing social issues and although one might expect of people concerned with the impact of technology to society to share some basic common values this is not always true.

Tangible Computing

Interaction design today combines methods and approaches from various disciplines such us industrial design, digital technology, architecture, arts, HCI and computing. Tangible interaction design is interdisciplinary at its core and embodies a broad range of systems and interfaces relying on embodied interaction, tangible manipulation and physical representation of data within either physical spaces or digitally augmented physical spaces. The notion of what is an interface has escaped the limits of the digital screen and computing is increasingly embedded in all types of physical environments.

Tangible interaction designers can explore the effects of technology on human experience and social interaction. By being an interdisciplinary subject, tangible interaction has a number of different views, motivations and approaches depending on the research discipline. These can be data-centered, movement-centered or space-centered for example and they can focus on either or both the individual and the collective experience within all sorts of different environments. However wide the field of tangible interaction may be, what is common in all disciplines is that today, the focus has shifted from controlled-centered interactions to designing the interactions as a whole instead of just the interface. This means that the system, the medium, the space and the body, can all be designed to participate in tangible interactions often changing roles depending on the situation. For example the body can be the input device, the space can be receiver and the technology can be the output or the other way around and so on.

The motivations and applications of tangible interaction research can also be very different, from education and wellbeing to commercial applications and product design. Focus can shift within the tangible interaction field but one theme that becomes more and more concrete is the notion of tangible interaction as a designed experience.

Tangible interactions are designed to facilitate specific functions and movements and hinder others. They are designed to manipulate the environment and space and provide virtual and physical structures where interactions are taking place. Tangible interactions obey the rules of the tangible system. These systems can be built for single user interaction or for collaborative use, whichever the case tangible interactions still seem to operate within the boundaries of a designed experience. Based on various case studies, it is clear that tangible interactions are more flexible than traditional digital interactions like the ones we have been using the last few decades, still there is the question of how flexible these experiences are compared to ‘original’ tangible interactions, and is flexibility in terms of meaning, understanding and functions that important?

If tangible design is inspired and focused on human behavior and experience, then user flexibility should be an important evaluative factor. One of the first examples of tangible design is the Lower Paleolithic hand ax discovered in northern Africa. This ax was made specifically for a left-handed individual, it makes use of ergonomics, it is an interactive tool and makes use of the cutting-edge technology of the time. We could easily imagine this ax being used in many different ways and possibly by more than one individual for the benefit of the user but most likely for the benefit of others as well. The ax is crafted with an obvious intend yet is can be flexible to the individual and the group according to their needs. Finally, the ax – as a tool – can be an inspiration for the individual or the group for further innovative creations. The experience is designed but it is also flexible allowing the user/s to learn experiment, create and develop further.

Tangible interaction designers today are facing the challenge of bringing together computation, behavior, use and form. Still, there is a need for a theoretical framework that could help evaluate these interactions in terms of experimentation, creativity, social wellbeing and importance.

Panoptical and the frenzy of the visible

The second half of the nineteenth century lives in sort of a frenzy of the visible. It is, of course, the effect of the social manipulation of images: ever wider distribution of illustrated papers, waves of print, caricatures, etc. The effect also, however, of something of a geographical extension of the field of the visible and the representable: by journeys, explorations, colonizations, the whole world becomes visible at the same time that it becomes appropriatable. (Jean-Louis Comolli, “Machines of the Visible”)

During the nineteenth century a wave of technological innovations extended the notion of the visible and comodified visual experience (more so than before). Photography, offset printing, cinema, and advertising changed our social visual experiences to a ‘frenzy of the visible’. It is debatable whether this frenzy culture is responsible for the burst of optical technological research or whether it the research responsible for the ‘frenzy of the visible’ culture burst.

During modernity the classical notion of the observer in relation to the spectacle has changed into more complicated forms where power interchanges and shifts amongst the subject, medium and space. Michel Foucault describes these interrelations as a ‘regime panoptique’. In this regime, power relations are mobile and subjectivity is fluid. In Foucault’s work, power, knowledge and the visible are interconnected. The panopticon is an architectural system; it is a twelve-sided polygon with metal skeleton and glass walls where a central tower offers a panoramic view to the peripheral rooms. It has been mainly used in institutions like jails and hospitals. In the panopticon, the subject is placed in a state of conscious and permanent visibility. The knowledge of the person who is being visible about her visibility allows for a constrained power as she is principle of her own subjection.

Such theories best describe the subject-spectator confusion that came along modernity and burst into an even greater confusion in post-modern and contemporary years. Today, Foucault’s ‘regime panoptique’ would fail to describe power relations between the observer and the observed in terms of visibility/surveillance in the social and political spheres. Technological innovations once again, extend our notion of the visible experience and often the comodification of that experience is preconditioned. We are now constantly watch and observe and being watched and observed both willingly and unwillingly. We have the power of knowledge and information while we also provide back knowledge and information. We are both the observer and the observed on a constant basis and we often understand this as a requirement for belonging. At the same time our notion of what is a visible experience has massively changed as visibility now belongs to both physical and virtual realms.

Fluid subjectivity is still present in today’s world but our understanding of the power interchanges and shifts amongst the subject, medium and space has changed. But is this change only based on complexity or could it also be the result of wider visibility? In other words, does technology affect the complexity of the subject-spectator power relations or does it merely reveal the socio-cultural-political and economic complexity of today? Again it is debatable what drives which as it is impossible to isolate technology from culture and social conditions. What is certain is that our curiosity and social desire to have understanding over constrains of space and time will continue to drive technology the same way the panopticon fulfilled the desire for mobile spectation.

Data Visualization

Data can leave trails into our lives that help us make sense. In this overwhelming time of technology where masses of data are available to be read, visualized and create new insights how can we find meaning in scientific research? Old school representation of data is being considered to fail to meet the challenges of finding/making meaning of information through data. To extract new meaning scientists are turning towards data visualization. Visualization, communication and meaning making don’t always go together though. Scientists can use data visualization to communicate their research, present results and impact or to distract meaning from data.

The most common process followed to visualize data is to collect, store, evaluate and visualize/communicate. Visualizing data as a process of extracting meaning is often the last step of this process. This results to an uneven power structure where the scientist is often the one with both the knowledge and the meaning. Scientists who choose to visualize data often work in isolation from the graphic artists or visualization scientists who are being asked to contribute when the data has already been collected, stored and analyzed. This means that experiments are often designed without considering opportunities for communicating and visualizing relevant information. Yet the scientists/artist who will work on the visualization part are still trying to extract meaning from the data since data visualization is supposed to be more than a mere representation of information. Cross and inter-disciplinarity could be the answer since scientists and visualizators could work together and in partnership from the beginning of the project considering the communicating and visualizing parts of the research early on thus allowing for more possibilities of extracting meaning and understanding.

In the emerging field of data visualization, scientists often work within interdisciplinary groups or are interdisciplinary scientists themselves. This can minimize the gap of communication between scientists and artists or communicators and maximize transparency and help intuition and discovery in all steps of the research process. However, there is one more aspect to consider. That is the source of the data and in the case of biological or human data the source is the people of whom the data has been extracted. These participants (knowingly or unknowingly) with their actions, habits and functions are usually left out the data visualization process. The human–data distance can result to unethical studies of data when the scientist doesn’t have a close connection to her subject.

Participants’ involvement or ‘user involvement’ in the research process can prove highly beneficial in terms of data visualization. User involvement can happen is various stages of the research such as: development, design and management, undertaking, analysis and communication. At the same time the level of involvement can also vary from consultation to collaboration and user-led or controlled research. User involvement in the visualization process – if we consider this process to happen from the early stages of the research as mentioned above – can mean that participants can contribute in all the processes that will affect the data visualization. That way scientist and artists/communicators can not only have a better understanding of the nature of the data (getting to know the subject) and higher level of transparency but they can also multiply the possibilities of discovering new insights, as well as, customize experiment design and make sure visualization is appropriate and relevant to the research subject.

The way to accurately and successfully visualize data is to know all the steps from hypothesis to understanding by involving all relevant stakeholders in the process.